There is no doubt that Russia is a very unlucky country. But it is especially unlucky from the comic point of view: an enormous ex-empire (covering one sixth of the surface of the Earth) has no comic culture from the Western point of view. Nonetheless, something is definitely taking place. While we could have included information on such interesting places as Lithuania, the borders of our survey are restricted to Russia only. So:

1. The formal forerunners of Russian comics are easily discerned. From our point of view they are:

a) icons - many of them consisting of the main portrayal surrounded by smaller images describing a saint's life or a biblical episode in individual details. Icons were present in every house and could be considered as the most democratic art form together with:

b) lubok - witty satirical folk prints widely available at low prices in marketplaces from the 16th to 20th centuries. Sometimes they formed series and sequels of drawings with inscriptions below or aside.

c) "Rosta Windows" (Okna Rosta) was a unique exaple of comic wall-paper released in Russia during the civil war in 1919-20. Paper shortages made it impossible to publish magazines and newspapers. A satirical wallpaper was made in order to react to everyday events. It was written and drawn by Mayakovski, Ceremnyki, and others and reproduced by hand employing stencils, handcolored in dozens of copies and hung in the streets. Several hundred issues were published and many of them had comic form, i.e. stories in pictures and poetical inscriptions. Mayakovsky as editor in chief had never suspected he was the first professional comic artist on Russian Soil.

d) sequences of drawings in humorous, satirical and children's magazines (since the beginning of the century) forming a story (each time new) that consisted of usually 4, 6, 8 or even more pictures covering a whole page. This "pre-comic" genre has flourished for decades, sometimes resulting in what we can definitely call genuine comic strips.

2. Comics in USSR

Boris Antonovsky in Smehach magazine (mid-1920s) created his famous serial "The Adventures of Yevlampi Nadkin" which was published regularly on the last page; an album was later published. Bronislav Malahovsky in Chizh magazine for kids (mid-1930s) published "Clever Masha" series (often reprinted since in book form) and other comic strips presenting single stories. Nikolay Radlov's notorious "Stories in Pictures" (the '30s) remain in print today. Many more sporadic examples can be noted. The text (if there was any) was generally placed below the pictures and never in balloons. This probably reflected the influence of the Wilhelm Busch tradition, especially in Antonovsky's works. In the '50s to the '70s, we can find some comic strips (three to five panels as a rule) in Vesiolye kartinki and other children's magazines, influenced by East European analogs, but not very numerous and-the main deficiency-not appearing regularly.

3. Ideology and Information

Graphic stories or novels were not familiar to the Soviet readership and moreover, would never be allowed because the concept of "comics" was considered to be extremely "anti-Soviet" and was harshly criticized in ideological books and the press.

Even innocent magazine strips for children were often dressed up as "animation films" for which a tiny TV set was drawn. The idea was to cut out the pictures from the magazine page, make two slits in the TV screen and then drag the "film" through the screen! The kids enjoyed these very much indeed while being absolutely unaware of the ideological disguise! And surely you would never find any adult comics-that was absolutely impossible in Soviet press.

Comics information from outside the USSR was restricted to Jean Effel of France (who wasn't a comic book artist by any strict definition) and Herluf Bidstrup of Denmark, both communists. The latter was a marvelous comic book artist indeed, and the works of both of them infected many kids with the comics virus. The albums of Effel and Bidstrup were often in print, and that was a big ideological mistake of Kremlin. What else was available in Russia? The occasional Placide et Muso in Nauka i zhizn scientific magazine (a couple of episodes) and an album about Pif's creators in French that appeared in the Progress book store in 1983. Only children from diplomatic families could obtain bunches of Western comics magazines and collections, but they formed an absolute minority in our huge country! As for me, I was lucky enough to see a copy of America magazine in 1971 where I found two Krazy Kat strips with an introduction by Gerald Wills, and it was then that I became a comics-addict forever...

4. Mainstream

Russian comics today got their start in the late '80s and were marked by a strong Western influence (as it was supposed to be!). I guess it was 1988 when I first saw The History of the USSR published in comic form-in English "for foreign readers." It was a small present of Perestroika. This booklet has never appeared in Russian, and perhaps for good: the product looked pretty ugly. Perestroika showed that comic art was no longer a danger to Soviet society. Rather many artists from the KOM, Pilot and Tema studios turned to producing comic strips and graphic stories (several their collections were sold out). Two main aficionados from Tema, Vladimir Sakov and Sergey Lukyanchikov, published their albums in early '90s and were exhibited in the West, the latter having won several prizes.

Surprising things were happening outside Moscow: let's mention the Muha Magazine as an example.

The West lost interest in Russian comics and the inner market was never born. Mainstream comics artists in Moscow make their living primarily in animation, comics being a hobby. Some people work in the West; for instance, Konstantin Kryssov who contributes to the comics magazine Mosaik in Berlin. Occasional strips still appear here and there in some marginal newspapers and slick magazines but never on strict regular basis, and they usually fold before long.

5. "Underground?"

There is another comics tradition in Moscow-it is represented by several people engaged in contemporary art and literature. Georgy Litichevsky has been active in the comics field for at least 15 years. His work now regularly appears in Khudozhestvenny Zhurnal and other magazines and deal with different topics-from art to eroticism, his writing is no less interesting than his drawing. Another cartoonist along these lines is Ilia Kitup, who published his strips in the newspapers Business for Teens and Nochnoye Nebo. In 1993-94 he published Kitup's Own PROPELLER Comics Monthly (approximately 100 copies on risograph, in English) filled mainly with his own work. Litichevsky took part in the publication as well as Daniel Filippov, the youngest and probably the most talented of them. All three had publications in the West, the latter having won a prize.

This tradition could be called "underground" if there were an underground. In fact, the "underground" means nothing more than the small number of the readers of Propeller. We must realize that Kitup chose English language instead of Russian for his magazine because nobody would read it in his homeland where even mainstream comics find no audience and fans. I believe that one should look for a real comics underground in Russian secondary schools. Armies of schoolchildren produce them now, and soon they will appear on the stage. But-once again-who would read this stuff?

6. Perspectives and conclusions

Mainstream comics in Russia are mainly of rather poor artistic and literary quality. Other types of comics generate little interest. Conclusions? All the efforts to establish comic culture in Russia are in vain for many reasons, the primary one being the lack of interest from the audience and consequently, the absence of market. The question "why?" finds no easy answer. One possible reason is that Russian life itself is so "comic," that the citizens don't need any comics.

Or maybe the bloody Russians are so "sophisticated" because of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky that they don't even care to look through these silly brochures with drawings.

Perhaps we need a comic book Marshall plan? Maybe Jose Alaniz (thanks for your investigation on the topic!), an American journalist and comic book artist working in Moscow, will improve the situation. He dreams of it. We also.

The future? Well, Russia is not just Moscow. It's a large place and new comics prophets may come from St. Petersburg, the Urals or Siberia. And I suppose that thin booklets of Donald Duck and The Ninja Turtles perhaps are not in the best way, but they have been educating youngsters for several years already. Soon they will finish school, and we'll see what happens!

Ilia Kitup, Propeller